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A state senator wants to eliminate child labor laws in Missouri. This is not a shock. In the past few decades, middle-class Americans have gone from single-earner families to two-earner families. Why not three-, four-, and five-earner families? 

Or as Jay Leno put it, "Why should the 10-year-olds in China be getting all the good factory jobs, huh?"

Since Republicans gained control of 54 state legislative chambers in November, a flood of anti-middle-class proposals are being rammed through Statehouses all over the country.   

Massive, thunderous protests in Wisconsin have brought national attention to Gov. Scott Walker's plan to savagely cut wages, benefits and bargaining rights for government workers. Gov. John Kasich says he'll do the same thing in Ohio if a bill racing through the state Senate doesn't pass. In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie wants to drastically cut retirement benefits. Never mind that the state’s politicians skipped pension contributions in 13 of 17 years while workers didn’t skip any. Oh, and New Jersey’s pension fund managers actually lost money on some of their “creative” investments.

None of these guys are willing to raise taxes on millionaires. That’s because their political careers depend on millionaires. They receive generous support from a well-funded, well-coordinated network of think tanks, Astroturf groups, business groups, political action committees and billionaire donors. The CEO political machine is epitomized, perhaps, by the Koch brothers, who hold secret meetings of billionaires and CEOs every year to plot political strategy. The Kochs founded the Tea Party through Americans for Prosperity, which contributed $40 million to political campaigns this year.

These short-sighted capitalists foster proposals to enhance their own wealth under the rubric of “creating a good business climate.” Whether intentional or not, their greed and their reactionary ideas end up undermining the middle class.

Take Utah’s new U.S. senator, Mike Lee, for example. He was elected with the help of the Tea Party. He thinks child labor laws are unconstitutional. And it’s no accident that the Missouri state senator who filed the bill to repeal child labor law also filed a bill to weaken unions. In Nevada, a bill was filed yesterday to repeal the minimum wage.

Since 1955, the wildly misnamed National Right to Work Legal Defense Fund has gotten funding from large corporations and billionaires to do one thing: bust unions. The Koch brothers donate money to the group, which is behind many of the “right to work (for LESS)” proposals being considered in Maine, New Hampshire, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, Montana and Missouri.

These “right to work (for LESS)” proposals have been passed in more than a dozen states. They have nothing to do with rights and nothing to do with work. They are simply a tactic for weakening unions by forcing them to represent workers who don’t pay dues. Presented as a tool to “create a good business climate,” “right to work (for LESS)” laws resulted in a lower standard of living for everyone. Wages declined by more than $5,000 a year, the risk of workplace death rose by 50 percent, educational standards fell and poverty increased.

Now that “right to work (for LESS)” laws have weakened private-sector unions, politicians are going after public-sector unions. In Wisconsin, for example, Gov. Scott Walker (a recipient of Koch money) used the pretense of “budget repair” to attack government workers’ collective bargaining rights. If Walker succeeds, he won’t just hurt teachers, sanitation workers, corrections officers and nurses. He’ll lower living standards for everyone who lives in Wisconsin. The state will lose $1.1 billion in economic activity and private-sector 9,000 jobs, according to the Institute for Wisconsin’s Future.  

Perhaps some of the lawmakers who support legislation to pauperize their middle-class constituents have good intentions. Maybe they really do believe that cutting government workers' pay or busting unions or cutting funds for education will result in a stronger economy.  But it’s hard to see how anyone can justify returning to the days when children as young as 5 worked long hours in atrocious conditions, when the vast majority of children had no schooling, when child miners were kicked by foremen and when children lost their fingers, their limbs and their lives in dangerous factories.

 The 19th century robber baron Jay Gould once said, “I can hire half the working class to shoot the other half.” Today we can see those divide-and-conquer tactics in the propaganda that pits public sector unions against private sector unions, rank-and-file against union leadership, unionized workers against nonunionized workers, citizen workers against non-citizen workers. The divide-and-conquer mindset culminated recently in Walker’s threat to call out the heavily working-class National Guard against government workers if they didn’t like his budget plan.

So don’t get fooled by the attacks on unions if you’re not in a union. Don’t fall for the criticisms of government unions if you work in the private sector. Because they’ll come after your children next.

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